Partnering with the Baltimore Ravens means looking beyond the bottom line.
When it comes to dollars and cents, it’s hard for a company to precisely measure how much business comes from aligning with Baltimore’s gridiron giants. While a sponsorship can cost more than the dollars it returns, that doesn’t stop businesses from wanting to hitch their wagons to the winning team.
This season, Hagerstown-based Thompson Gas became the official propane partner of the Ravens.
“We just saw partnering with the Ravens as a way to really connect with the surrounding area,” said Randy Thompson, president and CEO of Thompson Gas.
Thompson primarily serves western and central Maryland, but the sponsorship helped the company push into Baltimore and Harford counties, where it opened between 300 and 400 accounts since the start of the season, he said. Each account averages $400 to $500 in annual revenue.
Thompson declined to say how much his company pays the Ravens, but he did say that his firm “nowhere near made enough money to justify the sponsorship amount.
“But we looked at it as a branding exercise, nothing more, nothing less,” Thompson said. “The thought process is that, over time, [fans] will want to do business with the companies that support their team.”
Jeff Elkin, president of Advance-The Document Specialists, the Ravens’ official document management equipment and services provider, said that while his company’s business has grown steadily over the years, the partnership “doesn’t pay for itself, but the hope is brand building, awareness, and pride, and hopefully new business opportunities because of our capabilities.”
The Cockeysville-based company signed its original deal with the Ravens in 2002 and has twice renewed, with the most recent deal extending into 2017.
“In our business, like in all businesses, it starts with the relationship. It’s really helped us form some meaningful, lasting relationships with other Baltimore companies. Sometimes that ultimately ends up creating a business opportunity,” he said.
The personal gains complement the business gains.
“There are some events [for partners] throughout the year where you get to really meet the players,” Elkin said. “You get a chance to strike up a conversation.”
The goals of a partnership vary, said Derrick Heggans, managing director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. Heggans, who spent years as in-house counsel for NFL Properties, the marketing and licensing division of the league, said a newer company may be looking for brand awareness, while a more established company may be looking to create awareness for a specific product.
In either case, companies choose sponsorships that will give them some level of return, he said.
“They would not pay the money to tie to the brand, the brand being a team or a league, if they did not feel that they were able to move product,” he said.
While sponsorships, especially with “a very successful team in an excellent NFL market,” are both prestigious and revenue-generating for businesses, the team relies on them as much as the firms do, said Jeff Diamond, a sports and business consultant who held executive positions with the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans.
“That extra revenue is very important for teams as they try to build a successful team and a successful organization,” Diamond said.
Sponsors know that the deals work both ways.
“For us to run an ad with Ray Rice, in his jersey, ultimately extends their brand, and helps them become more visible to more people,” said Brian Kasabula, vice president of advertising and sponsorships at M&T Bank Corp. Rice is a running back for the Ravens and a spokesman for the bank.
M&T Bank has been the official bank and naming rights partner of the Ravens since 2003.
“It gives us a unique identity in Baltimore that is really because the Ravens are such an important part to the community,” said Noel Carroll, retail market manager for M&T’s Greater Baltimore region. “It’s a significant part of our business.
“When the playoffs hit, we certainly up our advertising game, both on the billboards and the radio and TV,” Carroll said. “We leverage it as much as possible.”
15 percent increase
The company has seen a 15 percent increase in retail checking account openings this month, he said, adding that the Ravens logo on the bank’s Ravens check card is “like a badge of honor.”
“We’re branding the Ravens as much as M&T,” Carroll said. “They like the association with M&T — they see M&T as a very well-run organization, as we see the Ravens as a very well-run organization.”
The mutual relationship is key.
“We’re only 16 years old, so we’re trying to build and extend our fan base,” said Edward A. Burchell Jr., the Ravens’ vice president of regional partnerships and sales.
“As we’re extending our brand, we’re going to pick up national business, which is important to us, but we’re also looking for companies who are looking to make a positive impact to our community,” he said.
Sponsorship costs range from five to seven figures, and playoff clauses can bump up costs, Burchell said. Though sponsors sometimes receive tickets, “meet-and-greets” with players are generally not part of a deal, he said.
This is the fourth season in a row that the Ravens have made it to the playoffs. While the postseason attracts attention from new companies, the priority remains in relationships with sponsors that have been with the team all season long.
“If and when we get to the playoffs, the first step is to extend existing sponsorship assets,” Burchell said. “We want to work with the people who have worked with us throughout the entire year, so we have to take care of those who have taken care of us and then showcase them together with us during this time of year.”
While his job centers on generating revenue and business relationships, successful sponsorships require significant internal collaboration, pulling together the team’s marketing, electronic broadcast and media, digital media, public relations, stadium operations, facility operations, and ticket operations teams.
“If we can’t give them what they want, they won’t continue with us,” Burchell said.
Sometimes what the Ravens give, though, goes beyond what’s in the contract.
Lunch in the cafeteria
That can mean an invitation for lunch in the team’s cafeteria, or a tour of the training facility, said Mark Motes, chief operating officer of Timonium-based Smyth Jewelers, which has partnered with the Ravens for eight years.
“That’s stuff that’s not in the contract, it’s just something nice,” Motes said.
“They’ve always kept it where it’s a very down-home organization,” he said. “If I walked into the Ravens training facility today, if [team president] Dick Cass walked by, he would know who I was and shake my hand.”
While the partnership does not require that Ravens players or executives shop at Smyth, many do so anyway, even after leaving the team.
“When the players and the coaches leave the Ravens, probably between 75 and 90 percent still buy from us when they leave, whether they were there for a year of longer,” Motes said. “It’s a trust thing and it’s a convenience thing.”
Trust doesn’t get any bigger than the team’s relationship with MedStar Health, the Ravens’ official medical provider for eight years.
“I’d like to think the Ravens are comfortable with the MedStar relationship, and we certainly are comfortable with the Ravens relationship,” said Lew Lyon, vice president of MedStar Sports Health. MedStar is a nonprofit regional health care system with a network of nine hospitals.
“Football by its very nature requires a lot of medical care,” Lyon said. “It’s a very high-risk sport. Very talented positions need to be available 24/7, year round.”
That makes partnering with the Ravens not just a marketing tool for new patients, but also for new doctors. Aside from taking care of the players, a MedStar medical team takes care of the fans on game day. The combination creates a great training environment and attracts medical fellows, he said.
While Lyon said negotiating medical care comes before negotiating a sponsorship contract, even the doctors are fans.
“It’s more enjoyable when the team’s winning,” he said. “We’re fans like everyone else.”
Elkin of Advance agreed.
“There’s nothing that’s not fun about being affiliated with the Ravens,” he said. “It’s football. What’s not fun about football?”